As I was walking through Hobby Lobby last week to buy material to make a gift, I was struck by the number of cute little plaques with words on them – tons of displays for any occasion – teacher gifts, inspirational Bible verses, kitchen signs, man-cave signs – words for everyone.They also had the material to make your own signs.
Some of them reminded me of the pinterest-esque ones I have seen around, too – made with such perfect script and color themes that they look professionally done. I’m all for personal taste in home decor and craft projects, and indeed I found myself sucked in and thinking about buying/making a few of them – some of them were super funny and some seemed really sweet. But then after reading sign after sign, the cutesy appeal wore off and I realized none of them said exactly that I would have written, and I found myself frankly bored. Something about having the message already spelled out perfectly in unmoving, permanent letters just seemed all of a sudden very lifeless.
A good friend was telling me the other day about a book she was perusing in the book store. She was really into it – it was a book on art and
contemplation and prayer. Full of rich images of masterpieces, the author walked you through how to contemplate the images, even describing the natural flow of the gaze of the eyes passing over the image. She said the author’s purpose was to teach you how to contemplate art as an aide in prayer.
Isn’t it amazing that there is a need for a book like that? Hundreds of years ago, art was a widespread tool of spiritual contemplation, a medium through which people learned about God and connected with Him. I’m no art history major, but as my friend spoke about the book, I couldn’t help but feel the author had shed light on a trend of our times.
The cutesy-word sign craze is a sign of the same trend (yes – bad pun!). Someone’s already done the work of picking out the perfect words, and you are left with nothing to contemplate or really think through. Even beautiful Bible verses fell flat -you’re given such a small snippet (and someone else’s snippet at that), that you could hardly call it a lectio divina. The message, the moral of the story, the meaning – it’s all been sorted through for your ease and comfort – no digestion, thinking, or work needed. Which means the viewer isn’t needed, and the whole process becomes impersonal.
I came across a therapist a few weeks ago Edwin Friedman, who hit on the same trend. He wrote fables to illustrate what he learned about human nature from decades of practice. Through his stories, the reader is invited into personal dialogue with the characters and to do the hard work of looking into their own lives, without Friedman spelling out the moral of the story. The reader’s imagination is left to play, their heart left to be moved how it will. Friedman explained this saying, “That’s why all successful artists, no matter what their medium, are always careful not to give too much information to, or solve the problem for, the viewer” (Friedman’s Fables).
Have we forgotten how to contemplate? Or perhaps we just don’t stand in one place long enough anymore. As we let ourselves be absorbed by beauty – in art, in literature, in creation – we find a deep and silent rest that is all our own, in which we relate to that beauty and receive a message beyond words that only we can hear. The external beauty guides us to that inner space where eventually images fade, and there is a sweet and deep emptiness where we are known in Him and He is known within us.
Thomas Merton once wrote: “We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real…and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the Truth in whom he subsists.” (New Seeds of Contemplation) You can’t discover that inner person (or eternal Truth who lives within) without contemplation, without doing the hard work of staying in one place long enough and resisting the anxiety and doubt that try to tell you it isn’t worth it. The beautiful thing is that since the Holy Spirit is everywhere and anywhere at all times, He is constantly inviting us in tons of tiny daily ways to enter into this space of beauty. You won’t have to wait long for an answer once you put out the invitation.
I’ll close with this.
“Holiness and happiness are identical…’ Let me reveal to you an important secret of holiness and happiness.’ Make it your life long goal to withdraw for at least 5 minutes each day. During this time veil the images of your imagination and close the gates of your soul, especially the gates of your eyes and ears. Then look more deeply into your own heart and inner life, and recall anew that our hearts and souls are a temple of the Holy Spirit in the true sense of the word. Aware of the Holy Spirit, try to have a dialogue with him…If you make an effort to do this, you will not only remain content and cheerful but also happy even in the most difficult situations and moments of suffering. Rest assured that the measure of your trials also determines the measure of grace which the Holy Spirit will bestow on you…You see, surrender to the Holy Spirit is the way to true holiness.”
(Fr Joseph Kentenich, talking about a maxim of Cardinal Mercier of Mecheln, Pentecost Sunday homily 1965).
Bonus: In honor of Trinity Sunday yesterday, here’s a small seed for your contemplation, and this might help you get a feel for how art can lead us to contemplation.